Second Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 7, 2014
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
The war began a few days after our annual lūʻau in 2011. Since that day the United Nations has estimated that 190,000 have died, 9 million have been displaced and another 2 million have fled across borders to neighboring countries. Of the 2 million that have gone into exile, it is estimated that 1 million are children.
What began as a civil war in Syria has become both a regional and global conflict. Whatever one might say about why and how the war began, what is clear is its devastating consequences for so many men, women and children.
I heard a radio interview with a Syrian woman this past week who said that she simply wanted to return home. Then she lamented, “But I know my home is no longer there. It has been destroyed.”
Still, one could hear in her voice a glimmer of hope that peace would someday come. One could hear in her voice, the belief that many others like herself would then begin the work of rebuilding their lives.
While some may want to debate the “necessity” of war, we know about its toll upon human lives. How do we offer words of comfort to those crushed by the violence of war?
Our reading from The Book of Isaiah harkens back centuries to a time when there was another war in that same part of the world. The kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonians in 597 BCE.
Jerusalem was captured and King Jehoiachin and his family were taken into captivity in the first deportation of refugees to Babylon (2 Kings 24:1-17). Ten years later another conflict arose with the Babylonians.
Jerusalem was destroyed. The walls of the city were laid waste. The temple was burned and more refugees were deported. The turmoil caused by the exile to Babylon is recorded in The Book of Lamentations.
Isaiah’s message in the midst of their destitution and misery was the proclamation that the suffering would soon come to an end and that salvation was at hand. (Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year B, Craddock, Hayes, Holladay & Tucker, Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1993, page 8) The burden of Isaiah’s proclamation was that he had to convince the exiles that events on an international scene meant that God was again moving in history and had not deserted them. Isaiah sought to bolster the courage and hope of a desolate and despondent community. (Ibid., page 9)
Caught up in the fog of war, Isaiah offered encouragement to those returning home. It is “God who comes with might and strength to rule;” yet it is also “God who comes with great tenderness as the shepherd who gathers the lambs, cuddling them in his bosom, and watching carefully over the yet unborn.” (Isaiah 40:10-11)
In offering his words of encouragement, Isaiah provided the people with a vision of hope and peace. “Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4)
Isaiah offered words of comfort to those in exile. But what words of comfort do we offer to a Syrian woman longing to return home? What words of comfort do we offer to the millions more caught in the midst of over 40 wars and armed conflicts around the world at this very moment?
The Syrian woman may have heard of the 26-year-old American aid worker from Indiana named Peter Kassig who was murdered last month in Syria. Kassig established the Special Emergency & Response Assistance (SERA) relief organization in 2012 to save the lives of Syrians injured and dispossessed by the war. Family members and friends said his dedication to helping Syrians in need was more powerful than his fear of traveling to Syria.
They tried to talk him out of making his last trip in October of last year to deliver medical supplies. Those who had protected him during previous trips were now being routed by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL).
It is said that Kassig converted to Islam while in captivity and took the name Abdul Rahman. Having grown up with a family member who was a Christian pastor, I imagine he would have understood the words of Isaiah: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3) In June of this year, while in captivity, he wrote to his family, “If I die ... I figure at least ... I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.” (“Islamic State Militants Kill U.S. Hostage Peter Kassig,” The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2014)
What words of comfort do we offer to those crushed by the violence of war?
Several years ago I shared the story of my encounter on Alamo car rental shuttle at the Honolulu International Airport with several visitors. I boarded the shuttle at the Hawaiian Airlines terminal.
The driver took us along the ground level corridor of the Honolulu International terminal, making two stops along the way. At the first stop, a middle-aged couple boarded the shuttle and sat across from me.
At the second stop, a young couple with an elderly woman boarded and sat to my left. The driver made the customary remarks, “Welcome on board. What is your name?” checking to see if our reservations were in order. We all responded and soon we were on our way.
I noticed that the couple across from me spoke to each other in German and that the young couple spoke to the elderly woman in Japanese. It was the week of December 7th.
In the generations that followed World War II, we were told to “remember Pearl Harbor” and to “remember the Holocaust.” But I always wondered what it was that others wanted us to remember.
I sat in a bus sitting across from and alongside other human beings who knew about Pearl Harbor and about the Holocaust. Our parents were once enemies to one another. Some may want to argue that there are winners and losers in all wars and that I was sitting in the company of the “losers.”
But the brutality of war makes no distinction between winners and losers. We all suffer and in that sense we all lose a part of ourselves – our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our husbands and wives, our neighbors and friends – and with them we lose a part of our hopes and our dreams.
It occurred to me that the middle-aged German couple and the young Japanese couple had their share of hopes and dreams for themselves and for their children and their children’s children. It occurred to me that they wanted what we wanted for ourselves and for our families.
It was in that moment that I realized if we are able to find our way through the ravages of war; if we are able to find peace in our lives and in our world; if are able to offer words of comfort and forgiveness to one another; if we are able to find our way to the place where righteousness and peace kiss – it is then that we will have found our way home. Like the exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, we will have all found our way home.